Seeking Comfort

For most of us, comfort food translates to heavy, fattening, regret-it-later fare. An accomplished Italian chef explains how it can take on an entirely different meaning.

What is comfort food? Can it ever be a bowl of berries, or the string bean you munch while you’re setting the table? Most people would answer no: Comfort food is something big, heavy and fatty – something that shocks you into a food coma and makes all your worries go away.

But what’s so comforting about getting pudgy on the couch? Nothing. Fortunately, comfort foods can be comforting in other ways entirely, says Giada De Laurentiis, star of the Food Network’s program Everyday Italian and author of the new cookbook Everyday Italian: 125 Simple and Delicious Recipes (Clarkson Potter, 2005). “Anyone who cooks knows that it’s incredibly comforting to have a pot of something bubbling on the stove,” says Giada, who grew up in a big Italian family in California. (If the name De Laurentiis seems familiar, that’s because Giada’s grandpa, Dino, was a big movie producer, involved in all the Federico Fellini hits and responsible for American classics like Barbarella and Blue Velvet.)

“When I grew up,” remembers Giada, “my whole family would get together on Sundays and cook together and then eat a big family meal. To me, that’s comfort: The community, the activity, the smells, the conversation, the laughter and then also the food. The comfort was never just the food all alone. The problem today is that so many people grew up never cooking, so they think of the whole idea of mealtime as very stressful. That’s why, in my book, I start out with a bunch of recipes that are just really easy things to assemble, like a white bean and tuna salad. Once you start feeling like cooking isn’t that scary, you can move on to something like braciole – a sort of Italian pot roast. It’s one of those dishes that seems complicated, but in fact it’s easy to assemble and just takes some time to cook.”

That “time to cook” factor is critical, she notes, particularly if you want to derive comfort from your food in a truly meaningful way. Today, with so many different expectations influencing mealtime – food should satisfy our families, keep us thin, make us happy and more – meals can all too often be a flash point for stress. It’s enough to make anyone grab 40 pounds of macaroni and cheese from a Boston Market and climb under the nearest quilt.

Not so fast! You’ll get more comfort from your food, says Giada, if you stop thinking of your eating and your life as separate things. “I always tell people: Mealtime shouldn’t be stressful for you. Get your kids involved; your spouse, your sweetheart, whatever, and you’re creating something together. The process of creating is as much fun as eating. And when you actually spend time cooking, what’s funny is you usually end up eating less of the final product, because you’re eating as you go along – tasting this, tasting that, munching on a green bean, and so on, so you’re not starving by the time you sit down.

“Lots of people wait to eat until they’re so hungry that they’ll eat anything that crosses their path. People ask me all the time: How can you eat all that food and stay thin? The only answer I have is that, in an Italian family, it’s a different way of thinking about food. You don’t deny yourself anything in particular. We ate whatever we wanted – pastas, dessert, anything – but all in moderation. I think what makes Americans obsess over food is this whole business about telling yourself you can’t have something: The minute you tell yourself you can’t have something you want, you just want it all the more. If you tell yourself: ‘I can have anything,’ you don’t feel so anxious.”

Of course, even if you reject the notion of self-denial, there’s no need to go nuts. In her cookbook, Giada revamps lots of classic comfort foods to make them less fatty: Her chicken Parmigiana uses pan-sautéed chicken breasts instead of fried cutlets, her meatballs are lightened up with ground turkey, and she’s even found a way to preserve the best parts of that classic Italian indulgence – cannoli.

“What I love about the cannoli is the filling,” Giada says. “Making that outer shell, though, can be both complicated and fattening. So I developed a cannoli recipe [next page] that lets you satisfy your sweet tooth without packing it on.”

And what could be more comforting than being satisfied while still eating healthy? Life really can be a big bowl of berries – if you just learn how to cook.

is a Minneapolis-based food and wine critic.

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